TRAVERSE CITY — City commissioners buried in residents' complaints about unplowed sidewalks took little warmth from efforts to increase enforcement of snow removal requirements for property owners.
Commissioners instead directed staff to make sidewalk plowing a higher priority, a request that could slow or reduce the plowing of some city streets and alleys. Commissioners Jeanine Easterday and Tim Werner both advocated for less street plowing during tonight's city commission meeting if it would allow city staff to devote more time to sidewalks.
"Let the city streets go a little bit and see how long that takes for people to start complaining," Easterday said.
Sidewalk complaints started to pile up after five days of snow prior to Thanksgiving with little sidewalk clearing. City Manager Jered Ottenwess said the city was short-staffed due to some plow operators being on leave and that almost eliminated their ability to do sidewalks.
Ottenwess said in response to the complaints he directed the city's code enforcement officer to be more proactive in enforcing the city ordinance that requires homeowners to remove snow from public sidewalks adjacent to their homes. The officer will focus on issuing warnings in high traffic areas but no tickets.
But commissioners want the city staff to make more of an effort than what has been provided this winter.
"We will make an effort to prioritize sidewalks but it may come at a cost of not providing other services," Ottenwess said.
The city has nine people on its day shift who run nine routes to clear all city streets and alleys. When those operators finish their routes, if it's not still snowing, they start work on sidewalks. Ottenwess said when the city had 18 operators in 2006 they began sidewalk work and street plowing simultaneously. The streets department now has 13 people.
"We are limited, and I don't think there is any way to provide the same level of service we had in 2006," Ottenwess said.
Dave Green, director of public services for the city, said he does not yet know what changes they will make.
Carol Tompkins-Parker told commissioners she was almost hit by a city police car recently because she was walking in Pine Street because the sidewalks weren't passable.
"To continue neglecting our walkways is a safety issue," she said.
Harley "Slim" Deymstra shattered his arm last year trying to help a woman navigate onto the sidewalk on Munson Avenue where he owns about 200 feet of commercial frontage. He took another fall this year on his uncleared sidewalk and asked what message this sends to the city's visitors.
"Is this town not orientated toward tourism," Deymstra said. "We owe the people who come to this city."
But not every resident or commissioner advocated for the city taking responsibility for all of the sidewalks.
"We've been spoiled by the (sidewalk plows) in this town," said resident Bob Otwell. "But the (plows) can't keep our sidewalks cleared, it takes people."
Otwell proposed the city work on communicating with people their responsibility to shovel the walks on their property in conjunction with the city's effort prior to sending out warning notices.
Commissioner Gary Howe said the city sidewalk plows do a lousy job and residents need to pitch in or their walks turn to ice by January. He suggested the city focus its efforts on some main pedestrian corridors and leave the rest to residents. He also wants a cleaner ordinance and better enforcement of the ordinance but only after the city communicates to residents why it's important.
Howe also asked for immediate enforcement of businesses that clear their parking lots by pushing the snow onto sidewalks. He said it's a violation of state law.